General Manager Lou Lamoriello has done a good job of restocking the lackluster New Jersey Devils farm system over the past six years. The junior and college ranks have produced talented prospects of all skill levels that fit the Devils mold. Now their minor league affiliate is reaping the benefits of this youth movement.
The Albany Devils – still searching for their first postseason berth – have been reinforced with the franchises best players that are on the precipice of jumping to the NHL.
It has been a long time since New Jersey selected a natural left-wing prospect in the first or second rounds of the draft. Rather, the past few drafts have seen them select mid-to-late round wingers with high potential. Of the group, Reid Boucher and Blake Pietila have the best chances to become NHL players one day. After that, it gets harder to determine the rest of the bunch. Myles Bell, Artur Gavrus, and Harri Pesonen could become big time scorers but have their own hurdles to overcome. After that are long-term projects in Miles Wood, Mike Hoeffel, Derek Rodwell, Ben Thomson, and Riley Boychuk.
Expectations are high for Boucher, following a 60 goal season with the Sarnia Sting. With star winger Ilya Kovalchuk's retirement, Boucher's development has become a top priority for the organization. For now, the youngster is earning quality minutes on the top line in Albany.
Meanwhile, the defensive minded Pietila might be discovering an offensive side to his game. Entering his junior year of college, he will take on the captaincy at Michigan Tech. The quick, stubborn forward has made a name for himself as a dangerous forechecker and pest on the penalty kill. Those skills were shown on the international stage in Team USA's gold medal quest at the 2013 World Junior Championship.
Bell was one of the more intriguing draft picks in 2013. Considered a potential first round pick as a defenseman years ago, he was moved to forward last season in Kelowna to fully harness his offensive skills, namely his hard slap shot. After a breakout season, the Devils took a chance with him using a sixth round pick.
Instead of returning to juniors, Gavrus opted to go to the less physical KHL to play for HC Dinamo Minsk. The often-injured forward ended last season on fire after rediscovering his scoring touch. His development is murky at this point, and is dependent on his health.
Another player making a name for himself in the Devils organization is Pesonen. Last season, he scored 14 goals and 17 assists in Albany, which earned him a new contract with the Devils. The Finnish forward's scoring ability may yield way for a call-up down the road.
Rodwell enters his final season with the University of North Dakota. It is no secret that he plays in a checking role – most likely he will do the same in the pros – but he possesses all the qualities of an effective bottom-six forward.
Another 2013 draftee, Miles Woods, is a late-bloomer after missing significant time to injuries. The son of former NHL forward Randy Wood, Miles has plenty of physical maturation ahead, but his speed will be a benefit when he eventually plays for Brown. On the other end of the spectrum is the bulky, physical Thomson. He is effective along the boards at winning puck battles in juniors, but will be hard pressed to become a pro.
Hoeffel and Boychuk were sent to ECHL Elmira. Both are suited for bottom six-roles in the pros.
Stefan Matteau sits atop the Devils centermen, a position that is one of the most improved areas of the farm system since 2008. New Jersey does not appear to have any game-changers in the waiting. Instead, they host a wide range of skilled players: from offensive centers like Blake Coleman, Alex Kerfoot, and Ryan Kujawinski, to quick skating, high-energy players like Ben Johnson, David Wohlberg, and Graham Black, as well as all around depth in the form of Scott Timmins.
Matteau tasted 17 NHL games last season and hoped to rejoin New Jersey this year. But the team felt it would benefit the young power forward to spend some time in Albany. During the preseason, his habit of taking untimely penalties and over-aggressive plays resurfaced, showing he still needs some time to eliminate the blemishes from his game. He can put the puck in the net while his abrasive style should help Albany find open space on offense.
Coleman is now in his third season with Miami (Ohio) and has managed five goals through just six games. Most of his offense is generated by his effort and hard work. The gritty forward can play at center and wing, but his physical play and style mesh better on the wing.
Kerfoot begins his freshman season at Harvard. He is a raw offensive talent that can play all three forward positions. The Devils will be patient with Kerfoot, as he needs to add significant weight to his 5'10 175 pound frame. His vision and hockey sense will help a rebuilding Crimson team. Where he can continue to improve upon are his skating and defensive play.
From a skill standpoint, Kujawinski has the highest potential of all the Devils centermen. As he begins his third season with Kingston, the 18-year-old's biggest opponent has been himself. There are times he can dominate games matched by times he looks invisible on the ice. Through six games in 2013-14, he has tallied four goals and two assists. The physical centerman projects to be a second or third line forward in the pros.
As Albany turns to their youth to help in the scoring department, Wohlberg becomes an interesting player to keep an eye on. When he saw consistent time near the end of his rookie season, he started to find his offensive rhythm around the net. The two-way forward can help improve Albany's penalty kill which was one of the worst in the NHL.
Johnson hopes to put a difficult 2012-13 season behind him after struggling on and off the ice. In the opening games to the Spitfires 2013-14 season, he appears to be more focused than ever to his on-ice performance. His presence down low, paired with his feisty play, has him off to a good start to the year.
A player off to a very hot start is Graham Black, who has scored six goals and 13 points in his 15 games with the Swift Current Broncos. The 20-year old has been a streaky scorer in the past, but has made up for duds on the scoresheet with his relentless two-way play.
The recently acquired Timmins has made immediate contributions since joining the Devils. He is currently on the top line in Albany with Boucher and Joe Whitney. Despite being in the organization for a short time, his well-rounded play has helped him quickly adjust to the Devils system.
In recent years, the organization has looked to free agency to secure their right flank. In addition, many of the Devils forwards are versatile to play either wing or center. Still, it is a concern that only one prospect, Mike Sislo, who was acquired as a college free agent in 2011, is the only one developing solely at that position. The last time the Devils drafted a natural right-wing prospect was the 2007 NHL Draft, where they selected Matthew Halischuk and Vili Sopanen.
Sislo did well in training camp to possibly earn himself a future call-up. His highlight of the preseason was a game-winning goal against Philadelphia on September 24th. He has progressively gotten better on both ends of the ice and has earned more responsibility from Albany head coach Rick Kowalsky. The 25-year-old is entering the final year of his contract at a time when Albany is adding a lot of new faces to the roster.
Losing Alexander Urbom to waivers was an unfortunate gamble by Lamoriello, but he would not have taken the risk if not for the franchise's quality depth on the blue line. Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill, and Damon Severson remain and all project to become top four NHL defensemen. Each has size, mobility, defensive awareness, and can contribute in the offensive end.
Out of the group, Gelinas was the top performer at training camp. His strong shot from the point gave the team a long range weapon, especially on the powerplay. He can also move the puck from his own zone and join the rush. His counterpart Merrill showed flashes throughout the preseason but his lack of game experience was evident. Merrill's greatest attribute is his amazing hockey sense. Both he and Gelinas are now the top pair in Albany. Their contributions in all three zones have helped their squad to a good start.
As for Severson, he was returned to Kelowna for his final year in junior hockey. The dependable blueliner showed some nerves during the preseason, but each year he has proven to take the next step in his development.
With Urbom gone, Helgeson is one of only two stay-at-home defensemen left in the system. That makes him valuable to have in the pros. His safe but physical game helps dislodge the puck from opponents and clear the rubber from his own zone.
Scarlett brings the ability to quickly move the puck up the ice. What he lacks in scoring he makes up for in his defensive intangibles. He has bulked up during his time in juniors. Now he must adjust to the more bruising play of the pros in order to maintain his fast game.
Meanwhile, Brandon Burlon enters his third season with Albany. He is not an elite defensive prospect, but he can do everything a defenseman is asked. With his rounded play, he can be slotted into a second or third pairing without much worry, similar to current Devils defenseman Andy Greene.
Over the years, New Jersey has shown a knack for drafting and developing defensemen at the college level. The recently drafted Steve Santini is the newest member of the group. Now in his freshman season with Boston College, he was considered one of the best shutdown defensemen in the 2013 draft class, but has to improve upon his offensive game.
Rounding out the defensive ranks are senior defensemen Curtis Gedig and Joe Faust. Gedig is in his senior season with Ohio State. He is the team's best defenseman and plays in all situations, including special teams. His simple game makes him an appealing depth defenseman down the road.
Faust meanwhile will be wrapping up his final year at Wisconsin. Built like a fire hydrant, the short and stocky defenseman provides an offensive punch from the blue line with his shot and vision. However, he still needs to improve his overall game to convince the Devils he is more than a number seven defenseman.
The off-season acquisition of Cory Schneider marked a shift in direction for the Devils netminders. What was considered the battle for the heir to Martin Brodeur now becomes a question of the future back-up whenever he retires. It also gives the organization some more time to evaluate their young goaltending prospects. With the departure of Jeff Frazee, as well as the return of Maxime Clermont to ECHL Elmira, it is likely down to either Scott Wedgewood or Keith Kinkaid.
Kinkaid is the incumbent and most experienced of the goaltenders in the system. His consistent play made it easier for the Devils to depart with Frazee in the off-season. Signed as a college free agent, he has steadily improved through his first two seasons. He is not expected to become an elite puck-stopper, but his agility, stickhandling, and competitive drive are two of his best attributes. Once again, he will have to compete for starts against a new challenger.
Wedgewood beat out Clermont in training camp for the second goaltender spot in Albany. Of the organization's young goaltenders, he has the best long-term potential amongst his companions. In his first pro season, he was the best player most nights on a bad Trenton squad in the ECHL. Despite his soft stats, the team felt he made progress in his rookie year. Entering his second pro season, he continues to adjust to the hectic schedule and its effects on and off the ice. He can perform under pressure with the ability to carry his team for large stretches of time.
Below them is Clermont who has yet to find consistency at the pro level. After two seasons with ECHL Elmira, he has not eclipsed a .900 save percentage. Considering that goaltenders can take longer to develop, it is not a surprise to see his early struggles. The franchise does hope to see some progress by the Quebec native this season.
The fourth goaltending prospect, Anthony Brodeur, enters his rookie season with the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. There might be some adjustment period making the step up to juniors, but the young Brodeur has performed alright in his first handful of games. In training camp, he demonstrated he can flash the glove like his father but plays a more technical style. He will be given every opportunity to succeed within the organization, but he has a long road ahead to reach the pros.